Space, so far private missions haven’t done much for science

In the summer of 2021 the billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos have skimmed the edge of space with their new spacecraft, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, officially inaugurating the era of commercial spaceflight. SpaceX’s Inspiration4 mission then took private spaceflight to the next level, sending another billionaire into orbit, Jared Isaacman, along with three lucky passengers. In April it was the turn of Axiom Space’s Ax-1 flight to the International Space Station (ISS), which brought four passengers to the orbiting platform, including two multimillionaires and a billionaire.

Flying drone with camera

The element that unites these flights, in addition to the very rich passengers, was the promise to conduct scientific experiments. Unlike most space agency flights in the 1970s, almost none of the passengers on these missions had a science background, with a few notable exceptions, such as geoscientist Sian Proctor on Inspiration4.

The Virgin Galactic crew brought along a conducting instrument plant experimentswhile that of Blue Origin has analyzed the interfaces between liquids and vapors under conditions of microgravity. The passengers of Inspiration4 have measured their heart activity, blood oxygen saturation and immune system functions, by scanning their organs with an ultrasound device as they experienced life in zero gravity for a few days. Axiom flight supported 25 research projectsincluding experiments investigating how space travel affects cell aging and heart health, as well as testing a space-age radiation vest.

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So far, onboard research on all of these flights has resulted in the publication of only one articlewhich also did not speak of scientific discoveries but of Expand, a new biomedical database designed to collect the physiological data of all commercial spaceflight passengers and keep them in one place.

Great opportunities

Christopher Mason, a geneticist at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York who worked on Inspiration4 and Axiom, explains that more papers are already in the pipeline. The team made him some preliminary findings based on biomedical data collection by the Inspiration4 crew. According to an initial analysis, it appears that people who spend just a couple of days in space experience some of the same health effects that space agency astronauts experience after longer orbital missions, such as increased inflammation of the immune system, motion sickness and higher doses of space radiation. Using data from Inspiration4 and Ax-1, Mason’s research team will publish a paper on their genomics-based biobank in March 2023, along with a set of new findings.

According to Mason, private space flights represent a research opportunity. especially because could become more frequent than agency-managed missions. So far, only about 600 people have gone into space. Now, Mason continues, “there is a quantifiable explosion of commercial spaceflight taking place, providing the opportunity to understand the body’s responses to space flight“.

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